A Battle Has Erupted Over How Much Spectrum T-Mobile, AT&T, Verizon, and Dish Can Own





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Major 5G wireless carriers are in agreement that there should be limits on how much spectrum an operator can accumulate, but they disagree on the details, which could have a radical impact on your service.

In a filing earlier this week, DISH Network told the Federal Communications Commission that if any one carrier has too many spectrum holdings, it’s harmful to competition. In 2021, AT&T asked the FCC to establish a mid-band spectrum screen — or, regulations on the amount of spectrum a single company can purchase in a specific set of frequencies. Earlier this week, DISH filed comments with the FCC in support of AT&T’s petition and said “rulemaking is urgently needed” because T-Mobile and Verizon control “the majority” of spectrum.

“The excessive spectrum concentration among incumbent carriers raises costs for other competitors, including DISH, and inhibits them from competing on a level playing field,” DISH said in the filing.

These limitations potentially have a huge impact over your wireless experience and how dominant a carrier can be in certain areas. If one company is allowed to own too much spectrum in a single market, it could effectively become the sole provider of that area, eliminating the competition and options for consumers. 

DISH and T-Mobile have been at odds for a while. Earlier this month, DISH asked the FCC to more closely examine T-Mobile’s proposed deal with Comcast to purchase its 600 Mhz spectrum from Columbia Capital for $3.5 billion. Prior to the deal with Comcast, DISH signed a reseller deal with AT&T after failing to agree on wholesale rates with T-Mobile.

In its own filing on Monday, T-Mobile said it agrees that current spectrum screen policies are “outdated,” but AT&T’s proposal is “self-serving” and “not a serious starting point” for the FCC to revise spectrum holdings policies and rules. Instead, T-Mobile said the FCC’s policies should take into account the context in which a company acquires spectrum and how it plans to use it.

“By doing so, the Commission can ensure that it prevents anti-competitive accumulations of spectrum while also facilitating the rapid licensing and deployment of spectrum necessary to deploy (and enhance) 5G networks,” T-Mobile said in the filing.

Different approaches 

Some of these disputes stem from the different paths the carriers took to deploy their 5G networks. AT&T and Verizon initially opted for mmWave spectrum in 2018. While this frequency has a big capacity, it doesn’t travel very far. The two quickly pivoted to using lower frequencies that offer more range, but in the early years didn’t have much spectrum in that range to work with.

T-Mobile, however, scooped up 2.5Ghz from Sprint after the companies merged in 2020. That falls in the so-called mid-band range of spectrum, with a good mix of range and speed. That’s allowed T-Mobile to surge past its competitors with a wider ranging and faster network.  

AT&T and Verizon eventually followed suit and collectively spent $68 billion on C-band spectrum in 2021, which is considered to be the “global frequency” for 5G with higher capacity and speed. Both got full access to those bands earlier this year.

T-Mobile’s decision to play the long game has paid off. The carrier reported its third quarter earnings for 2023 earlier this week. During the quarter, T-Mobile added 557,000 5G home internet customers, or just over 6,000 new customers every day, up from the 509,000 users added in the second quarter of 2023. The carrier also saw strong mobile growth, adding 1.3 million new prepaid and postpaid customers, for a total of 117.9 million customers.

During the earnings call, the carrier made a few jabs at other carriers “celebrating” their C-band deployment. T-Mobile’s CEO Mike Sievert noted that AT&T’s low churn rate and “high intentions” to switch by its base led T-Mobile to believe that its customers felt “trapped.” In turn, Sievert said “we released an offer that was about untrapping them.”

“[W]e have more spectrum dedicated to 5G than anyone else before we’ve even begun to deploy our C-band, our 3.45-gigahertz spectrum or Auction 108 2.5 gigahertz licenses, let alone refarming our AWS,” Sievert said. “[W]e started the 5G era two years ahead of the competition, and today, we remain two or more years ahead. And I predict that two years from now, we still will be.”

During its earnings call, Verizon reported 434,000 new broadband customers, including 384,000 5G wireless home internet customers — an 11.8% increase from the same period in 2022. Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg called C-band a “game-changer” for the carrier’s business which has resulted in improved customer retention, broadband opportunity and fixed wireless access, otherwise known as 5G home internet.

AT&T, meanwhile, reported adding 468,000 post-paid wireless phone customers and added 25,000 5G home internet subscribers after expanding the business in August.

In all of these situations, having the right amount of mid-band spectrum will be key, which is why the FCC’s review of its spectrum screens is a big deal. 

It remains to be seen how the FCC will proceed with the conflicting requests between T-Mobile, AT&T, Verizon, and DISH. In the meantime, the race to provide customers with the fastest, most reliable service shows no signs of cooling off. 

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